Phar Lap: Australia's wonder horse


Australia Between The Wars
Phar lap and strapper Tommy Woodcock.PNG
Phar Lap with strapper Tommy Woodcock


The awkward looking horse known as Phar Lap which was bought for £168 in 1926, ended up changing the history of racing in Australia. Phar Lap triumphed during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. He conquered the local racing scene, 36 wins from his last 41 starts, and then won North America's richest race, the Agua Caliente Handicap, in 1932. A fortnight later he went to the great equine heaven in the skies, struck down by a mystery illness that many suspected was the work of gangsters. Phar Lap was more than just an exceptional race horse to the people of Australia. He symbolised hope at a time when Australians were suffering economically and socially and he gave them something to be proud of.

Life and accomplishments

The name Phar Lap is derived from the shared Thai and Zhuang words for 'wink of the sky' or 'lightning.' He was a horse with many names. Whether it was 'The Australian Wonder Horse,' 'The Red Terror,' 'Big Red,' or as 'Bobby,' which is what his trainer knew him as, it was not important. Regardless of what people called him, he was a horse which would forever be held in high esteem among the greats of Australian legends.

While he was a horse which Australia proudly claimed as her own, although he was bred in New Zealand. The dark chestnut thoroughbred was foaled in Timaru on 28 October 1926 and went under auction the following year where he was sold for a mere 130 guineas (£168). It was the lowest price paid for a horse that day. He was bid for by the brother of Sydney trainer, Harry Telford who had convinced wealthy businessman David J. Davis to put up the money to buy the horse. However, neither of them had seen the horse and when the awkward-looking colt arrived in Australia, Davis was very unimpressed. In a compromise, Davis agreed to lease the horse to Telford for three years under the conditions that he had to train him for free and that if he actually won any money, he was entitled to two thirds of the takings.
Phar Lap with jockey Jim Pike at Flemington Racecourse c 1930.PNG
Phar Lap with jockey Jim Pike at Flemington Racecourse c 1930

Telford had bought the horse based on his good pedigree and his large size; however after seeing his performance in his first few races, even Telford began to doubt his purchase. Phar Lap was certainly no dream for any trainer. Off the track he was mischievous, often pulling his trainer's hair and tearing the shirts of stableboys. On the track he was rather weak, clumsy and constantly tripping over, coming dead last in his very first race. It was not until April 1929 that he even won a race and even then it was a 'maiden race,' being only for horses who had never won a race. However, after that it did not take long for him to win a series of races including the Rosehill Guineas and the A.J.C. Derby. He was now a serious competitor. As a result he went into the 1929 Melbourne Cup, Australia's biggest race, as favourite. Being too headstrong, he tried to lead the field and win the race too early and he ended up coming third.

The following year he went on to win more than twelve other races and secured his odds as favourite for the Melbourne Cup, four months before. People were so certain that he would win that, in the style of a drive by shooting, two men in a car fired a rifle at the horse in an attempt to kill him. Tommy Woodcock, Phar Lap's strapper, managed to quickly save him without anyone being harmed, but from that point on no risks were taken and the prize winning horse was kept under close security.

Regardless of his brush with death, an unfazed Phar Lap and his jockey, James Pike, took out the 1930 Melbourne Cup. He also changed history by becoming the first 'odds on' favourite to win the event. He returned home from the carnival with a total of £12 429 in winnings. Telford's lease on Phar Lap had expired and so Davis sold him a share of the horse for £4000 which would have been equivalent in 1930 to almost 13 years of wages for the average male.

By Melbourne Cup the following year, Phar Lap stood at a massive 17.1 hands, or 208 centimetres from the ground to the top of his head. As favourite, in an attempt to improve the odds of the other horses, he was handicapped by the Victorian Racing Club by having to carry an unprecedented 10 stone 10 pounds (68 kilograms). Telford did not want to see Phar Lap try to race with that amount of weight; however Davis did not heed his concerns and in what would be his last race in Australia he ran eighth.
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With an invitation for Phar Lap to race in the Agua Caliente Handicap in Tijuana, Mexico, his owners jumped at the chance to see how he faired against the best in North America. Due to the Depression, the richest horse race in the world which normally had a prize of $US100 000 was reduced to $US50 000. However, it was still a lot of money by anyone's standards and it certainly did not go unnoticed by Phar Lap's owners.

Phar Lap had a long journey by ship and then horse van, to carry 129 pounds in a race which was held in the unfamiliar Mexican heat and on a dirt track which was completely different to the grass one he had always raced on. Despite all of this, in his first-ever overseas race on 20 March 1932, he managed to take out first place by over two lengths and with a new record of 2 minutes and 2.8 seconds.

His death

After returning to a ranch near San Francisco to recover from an injured hoof, on 5 April 1932 the five-year-old died in the arms of his strapper, Tommy Woodcock. Even after two autopsies have been performed on the horse, to this day nobody knows for sure what caused Phar Lap's death. Some believe his death was an innocent tragedy, that the pasture which he was in caused intestinal problems, or that the trees at the ranch had been foolishly sprayed with an insecticide which was poisonous to horses. There is also the possibility that his travelling between different climates and his training may have allowed for a bacterial disease to have been contracted. A number of people believe that malicious conspirators are responsible for intentionally poisoning him with arsenic.
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Phar Lap's heart is on display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra

When the news reached Australia, the response of Australians was a unanimous one of great loss. It made the headline of every newspaper and radio broadcast in the country. Phar Lap was more than just a horse. He was a symbol of inspiration to the people who had almost lost all hope during the hard years of the Depression. He was personified as having the characteristics which Australians looked favourably upon and could identify with. He too was an 'underdog,' coming from placing dead last in the very first race that he competed in, to winning 37 of 51 starts. He also was seen to be playful and have the 'larrikin' attitude that Australians were known for. Most of all, he was brave and determined, able to overcome the challenges which were placed in front of him.

Phar Lap moved so many people that after his death, a number of them even sent letters of condolence to Telford. Several films, a book and also a song were written about Phar Lap to ensure that his memory lived on. He was also inducted into the Australia Racing Hall of Fame as one of its five inaugural members. His skeleton was returned to his birth-land of New Zealand, while his hide was stuffed and is currently displayed in Melbourne Museum. His heart which was said to weigh a heavy 6.2 kilograms, compared to the average size of around 3.2 kilograms, is allegedly displayed in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. There is, however, controversy surrounding whether it is indeed his actual heart or simply that of a completely different horse, owing to historical and anatomical discrepancies.